Drugs and Disparity
by Tony Chavira
While Americans are suddenly forced to come to grips with the fact that they have to pay taxes for social services they want (especially if they’re interested in paying for far-off adventures in nation-building), less than 1% of the U.S. population controls more than 25% of our national wealth. Today, there’re roughly 99 Joe Plumbers (making less than $60,000 a year on average) for every millionaire household in America. More shocking, there are 999 Joe Plumbers for every billionaire household. And while this wealthy 1% hunts for new ways to secure American taxpayers’ money for themselves (or avoid paying taxes altogether to, essentially, do the same thing), the other 999 of us scrimp and save and fight for whatever tens of dollars trickle down from their iron-sealed pocketbooks.
Somehow we’ve grown accustomed to the pretense that “Americans have the highest standard of living in the world,” but the very fact that we have homelessness means that we don’t. The very fact that the food stamps program exists (and that people are forced to use it to feed their families) means that we are not a rich nation. You may argue that some people who use these social services are scamming the government and therefore social service programs are enabling this behavior.
But what about the many people who aren’t scam artists? What about people who need Medicare, free clinics, or food stamps? Who need to go fend for themselves and get the hell out of your way? These are Americans who’ve never been given the chance to move up in society, simply because of where they were born, the financial conditions of their families, or their race. These are people who grew up in labor class families that—because they were not given equal access to services or opportunities—will take on the jobs of their parents. There is no upward mobility for these people. They never had opportunities to squander. They’ve been trapped from birth.
There are hundreds of reasons why these people never had the prospect of upward mobility, some political and socio-economic. One thing we can all agree on is that, even if you don’t believe in social services, the last thing you want to do to communities where residents have no prospect for upward mobility is expose them to further self-destruction. In particular, drug use, which overwhelming impacts the lives of the young and the poor. 6.3% of all people above the age of 12 are admitted drug users, and if millionaires constitute 1% of the U.S. population, there must be a minimum of 5.3% of the working population using illicit drugs. And the cold, hard truth is that the working class cannot afford help with drug addiction, and thereby tend to get arrested more often for drug-related crimes.
But however poor people in America might be, we still find a way to feed our addictions. This, in turn, has led to rampant disparity and crime on an international level. As cocaine and other illicit drugs move through Mexico into the United States, the drug cartels become integral to local economies, overshadowing other industries in areas that desperately need economic equality. In 2000, the Mexican drug industry accounted for 65 billion dollars of revenue: $35 billion for cocaine, $10 billion for heroin, $5.4 billion for meth, $10.5 billion on marijuana and about $2.5 billion on other drugs. That’s an industry in Mexico that’s bigger than the entire global video game industry (which accounted for $60.4 billion in 2009). Except that those killed by the drug industry do not get extra lives. Just look at this horrendous map of deaths per state in Mexico caused by the drug cartels:
Yes, we caused that. All of us, by pretending that somehow aggressive law enforcement and harsh punishment would deter people who have no access to proper drug guidance. We tell ourselves that they’ll become too afraid of jail to do the only thing that makes them feel happy. We tell ourselves that drug users deserve punishment. And we tell ourselves that people killed in Mexico deserve death for being wrapped up in cartels in the first place. But the drug trade has infiltrated all aspects of Mexican society. Because the cartels have so much more money than the government (and thus so much more power), many Mexican government workers, police officers and military personnel find that it’s smarter to align with the cartels despite their employers. Their only other “option” is death. At the same time, the cartels have accumulated firepower (sold to them by U.S. citizens) rivals the Mexican police and military’s, so disobeying the cartels has grave consequences.
The availability of weapons and the enormous size of the drug industry have effectively turned many of the Mexican working poor into criminals. Even children are hired to kill, for $3,000 a person or less. But that’s what rampant disparity does: force people into situations so desperate that murdering for money becomes an option. Just consider how effective U.S. military recruitment is in poor, rural areas of the U.S.
But at least Mexico has a military and a police force. To avoid this, the drug trade has been spilling into smaller, more rural, less organized Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize. As these countries have been consistently exploited by U.S. foreign policy for decades, enormous economic disparity exists there alongside a lack of government organization to fight cartels back. This means that disorganized factions of these small governments are easily influenced by and may become completely under the control of cartels, who are more organized than some of these countries’ governments, and will continue to gain control over whole regions. Residents will have no choice but to concede. Guatemala doesn’t have control over many of its prisons. El Salvador is overrun by street violence and gang warfare. Honduras’s government has been infiltrated by the Mafia for at least a generation. The poorest people in each of these countries suffer the most.
The United States’s poorest residents grow up with easy access to drugs, little upward mobility, and practically no chance to get help for addiction. If a poor black man is caught with heroin, he will go to prison ... so there is no incentive to reveal his crippling addiction to the authorities. If he’s truly addicted, he will do whatever it takes to pay for his fix. Then he’ll get caught doing something illegal and go to jail. In jail, he will continue to do whatever he must to pay for his addiction, involving much more violent crime in many cases. Once he is finally released, he will be more willing to negotiate his morality, and repeat this cycle endlessly. At taxpayers’ very large expense, no less.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, a 12-year-old will be paid $1,000 to smuggle heroin into the United States, and $3,000 more if he kills a Mexican military officer on the way back. In order to put the heroin into his hands, a woman in Honduras will be raped by cartel members into subservience, along with all the other women in her community. She will grow, pack, distribute and manufacture everything before it gets shipped north. Her government will not be able to lift a finger to help her, and she will likely die there. Her daughter will probably take her place once she is gone. This is not fiction. It is happening right now.
In 2009, Mexican President Felipe Calderon did something that made the whole situation worse: he legalized possession of small amounts of drugs in order to focus government efforts on large cartels. This logic is similar to outlawing tacos, but allowing trucks to sell them so that the government can focus on taking down Taco Bell and Chipotle. But those “small amounts” have to come from somewhere, and you can’t ignore a large population’s drug problem to focus only on the big shots. You had a multitude of addicts alongside a vast network of cartel operatives, each carrying a “small amount” of narcotics. This law may have been the reason the cartels have hired so many so quickly, and the reason why the drug trade has become so comprehensive. There’s something in it for everyone involved: it has become a decentralized economy of scale.
Conversely, Portugal legalized possession of all drugs in 2001, and their program has been seen as a massive success. They have taken down large operations, seized more drugs than ever before, and seen a sharp drop in teen drug use, a huge decrease in HIV infections from needles, and a drop in the use of drugs by injection. Why was their program successful? Simply because the Portuguese government refused to see drug use as a solvable problem. You can make drugs as illegal as you like, but they will still be drugs. And there will always be someone to fall into addiction. As a government official, you have two options: help this person or punish them. The United States has chosen to punish them, and that clearly doesn’t work. Cracking down harder on the drug trade will only force it to reorganize. If there are buyers, there will always be sellers.
Taking the lessons of Portugal in mind, if our government chose to couple drug legalization with progressive programs aimed at ...
- helping everyone understand the physical and neurological impact of drug use,
- providing assistance programs and counseling for those dealing with addiction,
- managing the quality of drugs on the market,
- incentivizing cooperation with drug users to better understand the flow of large quantities of drugs, and
- offering treatment alternatives that are directly funded by money saved through this program
... we might be able to manage how drugs are bought, sold and moved through our countries. Moreover, vast amounts of money would be saved simply by keeping repeat drug users out of jail.
It’s particularly ignorant to say that those with addictions need more self-restraint, or that they should be jailed for their drug use. At some point we as a society need to face the complexity of what happens to these people every day. In poor communities where addiction and drug movement are prevalent, dealing can be your only chance at upward mobility. A lack of drug education can leave you addicted and either cast aside by society or jailed. How much of this was because you made bad decisions, and how much was because you were born into a terrible situation? If you were a 15-year old in Juarez, and your family was starving, would you kill a man for $3,000? If you were a woman in a Honduran opium field, when would you have the option to leave and start a better life?
Drug abuse isn’t going away. Ever. And its industry keeps many people desperately poor while other, crueler people get obscenely rich. We need some self-restraint. Our current path is so wrong that it’s ludicrous. Call off the police, call off the military, recognize the problem, and confront abuse and disparity from the ground up. There is no other way.